Happy Feast Day! For my non-North American readers, today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Empress of the Americas, the woman who appeared to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego in 1531, asked him to get a church built on Tepeyac hill, sending him off to the bishop with that request, and who eventually gave him miraculous roses and an even more miraculous image of herself on his tilma, his rough peasant garment. In short, her:
The miraculous quality of this image is almost beyond belief… and yet there it is. That the fabric itself, a kind of rough burlap, even exists today is itself miraculous. That the colors of the image are as brilliant and rich as when they first appeared on the cloth is inexplicable. How the colors are on the cloth has never been explained – they are neither painted on nor dyed; they are just… there.
Our Lady is clothed in garments that express the precise theology of the Catholic Church in the precise symbolism of the Aztec people – she is virgin, mother, queen, according to the various clothing she is wearing. Standing on the moon and outshining the sun, she is overthrowing the Aztec gods who they represent. If it is a human image, who is the religious genius living in Mexico who could bridge the cultural gap of Spain and the Aztecs?
The miracles mount up: the stars on her dress correspond to the precise constellations in the sky on Tepeyac Hill on December 12, 1531. Her eyes (and this is where it gets weird, folks) have reflections in them of the bishop and of Juan Diego, as a real human eye has when it looks at someone. And it goes on and on – books have been written on the miraculous image of la Virgen Morena de Guadalupe.
Because of all of that, it is a day of great fun and jollity in Madonna House. A day to be children in the house of our mama who takes such good care of us we can laugh and cavort a bit without doing no harm to no one.
We begin the day with the mananitas, the morning song, traditionally sung in Mexican culture to young women on their birthdays or other celebrations. We gather in the MH basement, drink some hot chocolate (it is bitterly cold today), and then creep over to the chapel (so as not to wake Her up, you know!), and greet her with a song. The image is set up in the chapel surrounded by vigil lights and flowers.
We have a time of singing spontaneously, children serenading their mother on her ‘birthday’. After Lauds, we carry her in festive procession to the dining room where she is enthroned for the day. We light tapers in front of her to bring our prayers and intentions to her.
Then the regular MH day follows, with a Mexican supper (well, the best we can manage, given our poverty), and a grand party tacked on in the evening with singing and dancing and a play to act out the story. We have a little custom, though, in the midst of all that joy and beauty, that I want to share with you.
Our Lady spoke a number of times to Juan Diego in the course of the story, little words of maternal assurance and care, words that are full of tenderness and gentle love. We write these little sentences on paper roses, and each of us picks one to be our ‘word’ from Our Lady for the year.
This has always been a most meaningful custom for me, in a very simple, even amusing way, which have taught me everything I know about Our Lady and her love for me. Two incidents: a number of years ago, I was the choir director in MH. December 12 is, of course, just before Christmas. As it happens, I was coming down with a cold that day, and was just a little concerned about the timing of it. Not a good season of the year for a choir director to get sick, right?
But, it was just a cold and I wasn’t exactly dying of anxiety. But the rose I got that year read, “Do not be afraid of this illness or any other illness”! Mary’s words to Juan Diego were about his sick uncle. But this little incident taught me more about how much of a mother Mary was to me. It was just a silly little cold, and I wasn’t really all that worried… but like any good mama, she didn’t want me to be worried at all about it. She also wanted me to know that she was on the job for me.
A couple years ago, I had another one, this time Mary correcting me with great humor. I am a bit of a grammar stickler. It comes with the territory of being a writer and man of words. Two years ago, I had been noticing how many signs and posters and such things in MH were rife (rife, I tell you!) with punctuation and grammar mistakes.
And, not being shy about expressing my opinions (as this blog attests to), I was… well, I was being a bit obnoxious in pointing such things out. ‘That semi-colon has no reason to exist! That comma completely changes the meaning of the sentence! That is not how you spell that word!’ That kind of thing.
So I get my rose on December 12. The person who wrote out the words of Our Lady was mildly dyslexic, I guess, and so I get a rose saying, “Am I, your Mother, ont here?” And I heard the Blessed Mother, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, the Immaculata, the Virgin of virgins, basically laughing her head off at me, and saying, ‘chill out, boy!’
So that’s Our Lady. Miracles and wonders, unutterable beauty and joy beyond joys… and at the same time a mama, a good mama who is on the job, paying close attention to us, and happy to console, encourage, or as the case may be, chide us. Happy feast day to you – have a taco or something! Something fun and a little silly, if you want. It’s a great day to be a child of Mary.